How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sara Bareilles?



Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Ryan Sartor looks at the career of Sara Bareilles and sees things differently than expected.

Four of the first six tracks on Sara Bareilles’ 2010 album, Kaleidoscope Heart, are some of the most lyrically sharp and melodious pop songs of the past five years. This quadrilogy of modern toe-tappers  (“Uncharted”, “Gonna Get Over You”, “King of Anything”, and “Say You’re Sorry”) is surrounded—both on Kaleidoscope Heart and throughout Bareilles’ discography—by a sea of same-sounding ballads and just barely better than Katy Perry’s “Roar”-level concoctions.

While it may seem cruel to go out of one’s way to point a finger at the deficiencies of any artist (a practice all the more troubling since Bareilles could very well find this essay and throw her own shade via Twitter), it’s conversely taxing to convince a certain type of music fan that they should listen to any four songs by a former coach from The Voice (ed note: This was written pre-Chris Martin). Bareilles has a reputation among music aficionados as being less than, but the skill on display throughout these four tracks is not just more than, it’s awesome.

And also, what’s so bad about just writing and performing four great tracks in one’s career? Many artists spend whole careers trying to write even one memorable tune. Many of these people have failed and, for their troubles, have even been inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. The point being that greatness is its own reward. Let’s take a look at two stand-outs from the tracks, which will henceforth be known as The Bareilles Four, and then briefly take stock of the rest of Bareilles’ catalog, if only to acknowledge the big picture.

A conceptual sequel to Bareilles’ breakthrough 2007 track, “Love Song”, “Uncharted”, the second track on Kaleidoscope Heart, is a lyrically biting and musically rich three-minute ditty. It’s easy to be unimpressed by the pedestrian piano and metaphor by way of lake murder lyric found in Bareilles’ “Love Song”: “Head under water/And you tell me to breathe easy for a while.” Contrast that bit of yawn with the jumping piano and hip-hop-influenced strings of “Uncharted”, and it somehow works. In the song’s chorus, Bareilles openly acknowledges her one-hit wonder status while simultaneously rising down through the rubble of a failed relationship, singing, “I’m already out of foolproof ideas/ So don’t ask me how to get started/ It’s all uncharted.”

Having already bluffed her way past listeners and major record label execs (by way of the intelligent design involved in an exec’s stamp of approval) saying that she wasn’t going to “write them a love song” in 2007, Bareilles came out on the other side in 2010, truly confused about how to rekindle her past, one-time success. Realizing that she’d rather have a good time than be a Katy Perry-style artist herself, Bareilles pushes inward on “Uncharted”, essentially telling the record executive, “Fuck off for real this time,” staring down that fat, slick guy in a suit as he sticks out a sideways thumb and holds out his judgment until the first week’s sales figures are released.

“Jump-start my kaleidoscope heart/ Love to watch the colors fade/ They may not make sense/ But they sure as hell made me” is the sort of beautifully nuanced and incredibly direct lyric that makes up the very best of pop music, and Bareilles seems to have a bullpen full of such clever-isms up her sleeve, throwing this one into the bridge of “Uncharted” and spreading other such Bareilles tics throughout these other four songs.

Riffing on a point of view that New York Times music critic Jon Pareles established in a 2010 podcast about Bareilles, the best parts of Kaleidoscope Heart involve a bizarre mixture of Glee-style vocal flourishes and biting, seemingly autobiographical humor. “Gonna Get Over You” is perhaps Bareilles’ Glee-est effort on the album, full of “bah, bah”s, handclaps, melodies, that bouncy piano once again, and even a handful of killer soft-rock guitar riffs.

Addressing a former lover, Bareilles releases a torrent of alliterative fun, singing, “No more/ I won’t beg to buy a shot at your back door.” That lyric by itself can make a listener curl in upon himself, grinning like a Grinch at your local Starbucks, swaying to the beat and waving one finger in the air, twirling a lock of hair if it’s available. It’s a joyous song that could talk a man off a ledge or a wallflower off the edge of the dance floor.

Elsewhere on Kaleidoscope Heart and within Bareilles’ other two LPs remains a lot of effort with little effective results (despite a Grammy nod for last year’s The Blessed Rest). Bareilles’ general over-reliance on ballads or perhaps the mechanisms of the “major label machine” could be to blame. She’s tried out a few new tactics in recent years, such as releasing a dreary EP produced by Ben Folds in the summer of 2012.

A song like Bareilles’ 2013 hit “Brave” is as passable and amusing as “Love Song”, but neither single finds the singer/songwriter at her best. When she does reach those heights, though, she’s at the top of her class as a pop songwriter and performer. Here’s hoping that she reaches that pinnacle again one day.


Ryan Sartor’s writing has appeared in The Bygone Bureau and Punchnel’s, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter.